Sunday, June 22, 2008

FanBoyWonder Book Report: The Last Days of Krypton

A funny thing happened while FanBoyWonder was at our local public library a couple of weeks back—while scanning the “latest selections” section, lo and behold what did we see but The Last Days of Krypton by Kevin J. Anderson.

As regular FanBoyWonder readers may remember that last fall we did an advance preview of the upcoming release of this novel chronicling the history (at least the tail end) of Superman’s home planet.

The novel hit stores last fall but as we’ve had frivolous things to pay for such as food, shelter, weekly comics fix plus the return of Brianna The Girl Wonder (and family) on our plate; we could never seem to find that extra $25.95 (hardcover) to purchase this particular piece of prose.

So we thank the guy or gal in charge of book purchases at the library for it was their wise selection that allowed us allowing us to travel back into time and space through the 28 known galaxies far, far away to visit the most famous fictional dead planet in history.

Despite some 70 years of Superman, not much is known about the Planet Krypton. It’s famous for blowing up shortly after delivering its last son to Earth but the story of Krypton itself has always been fertile yet woefully under-explored storytelling territory—until now.

Unfortunately, we found Anderson’s novel to be a mixed bag. The reader doesn’t learn a whole lot new about the late Planet Krypton yet he manages to capture and keep the readers’ at throughout the author’s long and winding (and at times long-winded) story.

Here’s the Upshot from HarperCollins: “Everyone knows how Kal-El—Superman—was sent to Earth just before his planet exploded. But what led to such a disaster? Now, in The Last Days of Krypton, Kevin J. Anderson presents a sweeping tale of the pomp and grandeur, the intrigue and passion, and the politics and betrayals of a doomed world filled with brave heroes and cruel traitors.

Against the spectacular backdrop of Krypton's waning halcyon days, there is the courtship and marriage of Kal-El's parents, the brilliant scientist Jor-El and his historian wife, Lara. Together they fight to convince a stagnant, disbelieving society that their world is about to end. Jor-El's brother, Zor-El, leader of the fabled Argo City, joins the struggle not only to save the planet but also to fight against the menace of the ruthless and cunning General Zod.

“The diabolical Zod, future archenemy of Superman, avails himself of a golden opportunity to seize power when the android Brainiac captures the capital city of Kandor. As Zod's grip on the populace tightens and his power grows, he too is blind to all the signs that point to the death of the very civilization he is trying to rule.

“Through all of this, Jor-El and Lara's love for each other, their history, and their son allows for Krypton to live on even as the planet is torn apart around them. For in the escape of their baby lies Krypton's greatest gift—and Earth's greatest hero.

“The Last Days of Krypton is a timeless, ground-breaking exploration of a world that has never been fully defined, and reveals the extraordinary origins of a legend that has never ceased to amaze and astound generation after generation.”

The novel has been described as reminiscent of The Last Days of Pompeii in style—with a dash of James Cameron’s Titanic—in that it will tell the story of the lost civilization of Krypton in epic form.

The Kryptonian society that Anderson describes does indeed have a very Roman feel to it—with a subtle but a very real social/political caste system with certain prominent families, such as the House of El, at the top of the heap.
The ruling Council of Krypton governs by indecision and precedent with its mantra being “it’s the way we’ve always done it” followed close behind by “Thou shall not rock the boat.”

This is a civilization with its best days long behind it even as the planet is faced with multiple perils—a building pressure at the planet’s core, Krypton’s red sun Rao that could go Super Nova tomorrow or in a thousand years and a comet that’s on a collision course with Krypton—talk about overkill.

Jor-El and his brother Zor-El, scientists both, are celebrated in Kryptonian society for their intellect and their just plain inability to be ordinary, average and un-ambitious.

The white-haired Jor-El is almost certainly designed to make the reader think of Marlon Brando from the Richard Donner Superman movies—but considering we never liked Donner’s vision of Superman; this was not a big selling point for us.

Ditto for Jor-El’s nemesis Zod, who we see introduced not as a General but as Counselor Zod—he’s head of the Commission for Technology Acceptance.

Zod is a bureaucrat who is more devious and wily than gifted and brilliant. Zod—who likes to speak of himself in the third person early and often—uses his position as the planet’s technology czar to confiscate any and all of Jor-El’s inventions that is deemed to be potentially dangerous.

Yet rather than destroy those inventions, as is his mandate, Zod stockpiles keeps the goodies for himself, waiting for the right time to use whose weapons to “protect” Krypton and no one is the wiser—the fox guarding the hen house to be sure.

The author Anderson paints the picture of a civilization where its best days were long ago. The Krypton of Jor-El’s time is afraid of change and afraid other life beyond it’s own planet.

Given the number of different interpretations of Krypton over the years, it’s easy to understand why Anderson went with the version that people know best—the version that has been force fed into the public mind for some 30 years—the Richard Donner Superman movie version.

We found it difficult to picture the white-haired Jor-El in these pages as Marlon Brando but we had no trouble picturing the pompous, blustering Zod as the actor Terrance Stamp. Yet the character we most enjoyed—felt the most connection with--was Jor-El’s brother Zor-El, who in these pages is essentially the mayor/governor of Argo City.

Zor-El isn’t as naturally gifted a scientist as his brother and he knows it. But he does have innate people and political skills that serve him well in the story—he certainly sees Zod as the despot he turns out to be LONG before his brother the alleged genius.

Although Last Days does treat the reader to the meeting and courtship of Superman’s parents Jor-El and Lara, we truly wish the author had drilled down beyond his superficial presentation of Krypton’s customs, traditions and history.

Far too often, Anderson superimposes contemporary Earth slang and metaphors in his description of this advance, extra-terrestrial civilization in a galaxy far, far away. It proved to be an unnecessary distraction.

Instead, Anderson spends a disproportionate amount of the novel on Counselor Zod’s rise, General Zod’s reign and the fall of Zod and his subsequent banishment into the Phantom Zone—which ironically saved his life and the lives of his accomplices.

They would of course live to fight Jor-El’s son Kal-El another day under Earth’s yellow sun.

Fortunately, since Anderson was hell bent on focusing the novel so much on Zod, at least he made Zod interesting—which is to say the reader got to know and really got to despise Zod.

We really hated Zod’s ass three-quarters through the novel but we REALLY hated the people of Krypton, especially Jor-El, even more for falling under the spell of this guy who made Snidely Whiplash look like the master of subtlety.

Zod is a punk!
There we said it.

It’s not that Zod was so tough or so clever—although he certainly did corner the market in the ruthless department—but Zod was really a snake among sheep.

To Anderson’s credit, we could tell we were really into this book when we kept waiting and hoping for someone to give this blowhard some push back. Zor-El was one of the few characters to stand up to Zod and that’s what endeared us to the father of the Supergirl.

What makes Zod a punk? Because he was tough ONLY when he had the upper hand. During a scene in the book, Zod nearly came apart when his military attack on Argo City was stopped in its tracks by Zor-El’s force-field dome (the same dome that would protect the city and allow it to survive intact when Krypton blew up).

We didn’t sense any inner iron in this blowhard—not say like Lex Luthor. Put Zod and Luthor in the same room with a red sun lamp and you can count the minutes until Zod would be crying like a little girl. Heck, even the Toyman would eat his lunch.

Zod in the end of course was vanquished—thanks to Jor-El—but it was done in a not completely satisfying way.

Meanwhile, for all of his genius, Jor-El is among the most obtuse in his dealings with Zod and it costs the character dearly. Despite his instrumental role in ending Zod’s reign, the public’s fear and distrust of Jor-El and his close association with Zod make them deaf to Jor-El’s warnings about the danger to Krypton and it kills them all in the end.

So much time was spent in the novel on Zod that we felt that Krypton’s destruction got the short shrift. The scenes where Jor-El and Lara rocket baby Kal-El to Earth in a desperate gamble to save his life were forced—as it the writer were running out of pages and had to get that minor little plot detail out of the way.

Despite this we felt a Titanic-like tug at our heart strings in hoping these people would somehow find a way to survive even as we knew they wouldn’t.

When all is said and done, Last Day’s of Krypton was an amusing waste of time so long as you don’t accept it as cannon, not unlike a Star Trek novel. It counts unless something comes along in the comics to say it doesn’t.

Yet the novel represents a missed opportunity to really explore this lost civilization and addresses some long-unanswered questions.

Questions such as:

-- Just WHAT makes someone from Krypton SO powerful under a yellow sun that they would have the powers of a god nearly everywhere else in the universe?

--We would have liked to have had some sort of mention of Daxam—Krypton’s offshoot race and home of Lar Gand/Mon-El/Valor of the Legion of Super Heroes.

--Just how is it that Kryptonians look identical to Earthlings—North American, Caucasian Earthlings?

Bottom line: The Last Days of Krypton could have and perhaps should have been better but it was definitely worth the effort. While we’re exploring long-dead characters, how about a novel featuring the courtship of Thomas and Martha Wayne or the life of Hippolyta before Paradise Island?

Great Krypton indeed!


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